Something in the way Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer said it, or a verb or two by the way she threw it, made a bunch of white people run scared into a corner. Correctly miffed by the absence of any female or “of color” representation at a recent negotiating table, Brewer went brave and did something rare in corporate America these days: She called white dudes out about it.
“My executive team is very diverse, and I make that a priority. I demand it within my team,” Brewer shared with CNN during a Monday interview regarding diversity. “Just today we met with a supplier, and the entire other side of the table was all Caucasian males. That was interesting.”
More than “interesting.” What she carefully didn’t say was that it’s the last-stand normalcy of how America conducts way too much of its business. It’s no secret the vast majority of corporate organizations seeking growth in the highly diverse 21st-century marketplace can’t break out of racially perverse 19th-century traditions.
Yet, it was no surprise when a special breed of rise-up white digital activists exploded into calls for Brewer’s head soon after those comments went live. Not an isolated incident, and surely not the last, the brouhaha is merely the latest in a nauseating trend of mythical white victimology. Rather than a sensible exploration of Brewer’s point, the country club went ballistic, perhaps its buttons pushed to the outer limits of what white privilege could absorb.
We can’t yet verify exactly what star system they live in. But back on planet Earth, we’re more than happy to provide any number of prerequisite social-ladder courses on universal white male dominance in the workplace. There’s nothing that Brewer’s detractors have to worry about: White people, especially white guys, run the corporate top. Our own collective shrug and mumbles of resignation speak to their ubiquitous presence.
Note that Brewer didn’t say “employees.” She said “executive team.” African-American CEOs, in fact, represent barely 1 percent of Fortune 500 company heads—just five black chief executives—even as African Americans are a little over 13 percent of the U.S. population.
And that’s actually down from a total of 12 black CEOs at one point, a peak since the first black CEO, Clifton Wharton, was tapped to head up life insurance giant TIAA-CREF in 1987. There have only been 15 since. Overall, even as “minority” populations are close to now 40 percent of the population, blacks, Latinos and Asians are about 4 percent of Fortune 500 leadership. Women—51 percent of the U.S. population—are just 5 percent. And women of color? You guessed it: not even 1 percent.
Clearly, that’s a problem that requires quick commonsense preparation for the demographic reckoning on the horizon. Organizations can’t survive when they’re not adjusting to a diverse consumer base (such as the $1 trillion-plus buying power of African Americans) and people of color, who make up over a quarter of the workforce. Brewer’s point is practical: She can’t reasonably expect her all-white-led supplier to meet the constantly changing needs of her company’s diverse and economically underserved customer base, now, can she?
Contrarian white Twitter outrage belies clear facts on the ground. Even in a cutthroat corporate space where white dudes regularly give little damn about adding black faces to the boardroom, Brewer is still generous in maintaining white male leadership on her team (four out of eight)—which, by the math, is disproportionately represented, compared with white men’s overall U.S. population count of 31 percent. But, of course, she does that because, as a black CEO, she would typically get little flexibility or freedom to do otherwise, according to researchers Christy Glass and Alison Cook, who describe a “glass cliff” effect when minorities and women are hired at the top.
“[O]ccupational minorities are more likely than white men to be promoted CEO of weakly performing ﬁrms; and when ﬁrm performance declines during their tenure, occupational minority CEOs are likely to be replaced by white men, a phenomenon we term the ‘savior effect,’” Glass and Cook write (pdf) in the Strategic Management Journal.
You can’t tell angry white populists on the social media thread, though. We have a situation where 52 percent of whites, according to a 2014 Public Religion Research Institute poll, are convinced of “reverse discrimination” and an unwelcome underdog status.
Rely on the garbled charges of “racism” against Brewer and you’d get the impression that black CEOs have it so good, they can just publicly diss entire segments of a product-buying population. You know, something white people in leadership do about as frequently as they play golf. But it’s not like RedState, TeaParty.org or legions of other conservative bloggers have spilled inked outrage over Donald Trump, easily the gold standard for white male business moguls stuck in bigot mode (probably because they’re so busy defending him). Revlon’s white CEO was outed earlier this year for allegedly nasty remarks about blacks and Jews, and the list goes on and on. Where were these guys then?
Not that we’d be expecting much from these cats in the first place, the same band of rhetorical misfits who regularly give President Barack Obama heartburn just for sneezing. The manufactured backlash against Brewer is merely one of many assaults from a mobilized populist right infecting political discourse here and in Europe, a “fearmonger[ing]” that a recently spot-on Economist editorial warns will “pose a serious threat to the openness and tolerance Western societies take for granted.”
If architects of neo-white rage aren’t code-blasting working- to middle-class white voters with apocalyptic images of a demographic end, they’re pushing an ideology of cultural impatience. Unable to cope with the ramifications of minority status by 2050, white ideologues are digging in their heels for a fresh round of racial knuckle-up. Brewer may have unwittingly put herself on the front line.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.